The flow of goods and capital across borders and between nations has featured in human storytelling and economic relations since the beginning of time. The biblical protagonists traveled and traded with each other, and often fought over the dominion of resources. The protagonists in modern historical tales of trade and war since the turn of the millennium continue the habit in similar ways. You would be hard-pressed to find a better historical account of that than in Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O’Rourke’s Power and Plenty. The book is as much about the wars that divided empires and nations as it is about the exchange of goods and capital that bound them together, though it is reasonable to say that these two perspectives are joined at the hip. Economics plays a specific role in the study of global trade and empire-building. The exchange of goods, capital, and services across borders gives rise to transactions as the ownership of resources shifts. Over time, these processes lead to the accumulation of wealth and debt on the part of nations and economic actors—assets and liabilities, in the jargon of modern finance. It is the economist’s job to trace, identify, and record the nature and value of these transactions.Read More
It’s easy to trip over trying to formulate a market narrative at the moment. One interpretation of the dramatic decline in global bond yields is that the smart money is de-risking their portfolios ahead of global slowdown and a rout in equities and credit. The ramp-up in the global trade wars, and still-soggy economic data seem to confirm this version of the narrative, but it is also a somewhat naive story. The global economy is not in perfect shape, but it is hardly on the brink of a recession, especially not since it is usually coordinated tightening by central banks that push the major economies over the edge in the first place. The market is now pricing-in one-to-two rate cuts by the Fed this year, and three in 2020. The money market curve in the Eurozone is even starting to price in the idea that the ECB will further scythe its deposit rate below -0.4%. The argument in the U.S. is particularly delicious. Last year, the consensus was angling for a recession in 2020 based on the idea that the Fed was in search for a “neutral” FF rate at about 3%. Now that the Fed has thrown in the towel, the idea is that it will cut rates to prevent the recession that it itself was supposed to have sown the seeds for in the first place, by hiking interest rates.Read More
Let’s spare a few moments of symphathy for the equity bears. The Q4 rout was supposed to have been an appetizer for a more sustained bear market, and by most accounts, the major narratives are still on their side. Excess liquidity indicators—chiefly real M1—and other leading macro-indicators look dire, and the hard data have predictably rolled over. They gave up the ghost in Europe a long time ago, and are now softening in the U.S. Even better for the bears, earnings growth is now slipping and sliding, a logical consequence of the sharp drop in the rate of growth in almost all main hard macroeconomic indicators and surveys.
Despite such a perfect set-up from the macro data, the equity market has rallied strongly at the start of the year, and is showing few signs of rolling over mid-way through February. There is still hope for the bears. If you are just looking at the headline data, it is relatively easy to dismiss the rebound at the start of the year as a reflexive rebound from the horror show in the latter part of 2018, a bear market rally to suck in the naive bulls before the next deluge. The idea of a bear market rally is still alive, but equity bears also now have to contend with a revival of their greatest foe to date; the global central bank put.Read More
Markets were mulling familiar themes last week. Will a wider U.S. twin deficit change the rules for the dollar and treasuries and is elevated volatility here to stay in equities? Judging by last week, the answer would be: probably and yes. The contemplation over these stories, though, were interrupted by politics. Mr. Trump announced his intention to apply tariffs on steel and aluminium—25% and 10% respectively—and Mrs. May attempted to give clarity on the U.K. government’s Brexit position.* I was unimpressed with both. Before I have a dig at Mr. Trump, I ought to provide an example of someone who supports it. I have great respect for Stephen Jen, but his argument here is like endorsing the idea of a diet by advising someone to eat nothing but kale and carrots for a decade. The analysis of Mr. Trump’s tariffs requires a distinction between the principle and the concrete measures. I concede that China is bending the rules of global trade, but Mr. Trump is stretching the fabrics of macroeconomic policy if he starts imposing tariffs on industrial goods. He is presiding over an economy close to full employment, a low domestic savings rate, and a medium-sized twin deficit. To boot, he is about to let fly with unprecedented fiscal stimulus.Read More